My A-didas, standin on Two-Fifth street
Funky fresh and yes cold on my feet
With no shoestring in ’em, I did not win ’em
I bought ’em off the Ave. with the black Lee denim
I like to sport ’em, that’s why I bought ’em
A sucker tried to steal ’em so I caught ’em and I fought ’em
And I walk down the street, and bop to the beat
With Lee on my legs and Adidas on my feet
And so now I’m just standin’ here shootin the gift
Me and D and my Adidas standing on Two-Fifth – My Adidas
My Adidas – Run DMC 1986
This summer, I made a small list of travel priorities. I was fortunate to journey to London and Liverpool, England, and I have been exploring my hometown in Maryland via ambitious bike excursions, in and around Kent Island. While these deep dives into the UK and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay environs have been satisfying and productive, in the back of my mind I had always wanted to visit Hollis, Queens – home of Run DMC, and the geographical catalyst for mainstream Hip-Hop.
I realize that traveling to a small neighborhood, outside the tourist-heavy, and more action-packed, exciting New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, might seem a strange place to set my sights, but I have been determined to get there for a long time. As a student of Hip-Hop culture, and attempting to be a steward of this genre of music, art, and dance, I often revisit the photographic images that captured my imagination and attention back in the mid-1980s. It was one thing to hear the music, and decipher the lyrics, often trying to conjure the scene on a sidewalk three hundred miles from home – It was another to realize that these voices, and the neighborhoods from which they emerged, were minutes from where each of my own parents grew up. Dad was from Brooklyn and Mom was from Queens.
“Kings from Queens from Queens come Kings
We’re raisin hell like a class when the lunch bell rings
The king will be praised, and hell will be raised
S-s-s-suckers try to faze him but D won’t be fazed
So what’s your name? DMC! The King is me!
Your High-ness, or His Majesty!
Now you can debate, you c-c-c-concentrate
But you can’t imitate DMC the Great!” – Run DMC
About two months ago, I logged into a Run DMC Facebook group, and I threw down the gauntlet. I announced that I’d be going to Hollis, Queens to find locations made famous by photographers Glen E. Friedman, Janette Beckman, and Ken Regan.
Now that I had verbalized my plan, I felt that there was no backing out of it. I committed to making it happen before the summer was over. Much to my pleasant surprise, one of the other members of the FB group, and a friend from the Beastie Family, Nick Light, texted me to say that he would like to be involved with my loosely-planned trip. If I could give him enough notice, once I picked a date, he would come down from Canada to meet me in Hollis. This commitment from Nick served to steel my resolution, and I doubled my efforts to get there. I started looking for open dates on my calendar.
In the month leading up to my trip, I spent many hours researching and cross-checking images and addresses. My modus operandi for these travel missions, usually involves a great deal of ‘driving around’ virtually on Google Maps ‘Street View’. If you haven’t done this, it is an incredible way to immerse yourself in the planning of a visit to a destination. This approach is especially useful when traveling to a place you’ve never been, and in the observation of how neighborhoods, cities, and architecture has changed (or not changed) over time. My plan was to go into Hollis, prepared with dozens of historically significant photos, some rock-solid addresses, and to match up my photos with the images made famous by Glen, Janette, and Ken. I dropped flags, discovered some obscure, little known locales, and labeled all of the destinations I hoped to hit. I selected July 24th or 25th, a Wednesday or a Thursday, sent Nick a note, and hoped for the best.
It turned out that the only day Frank, Nick’s cameraman friend, could meet us, was Wednesday the 24th of July. A date had been picked. I would meet Frank and Nick on the street in Hollis. Wait, a cameraman? What is that all about? More on that, later.
In the week leading up to the trip, I boldly and nervously announced my intentions to Darryl McDaniels (DMC), Glen E. Friedman, and Janette Beckman. I wanted their blessings to undertake this work, and if possible, glean some all-important intel for the photographs that were tricky to pinpoint. Of course I also invited each of them to join us, and although they each replied kindly, none of them were free that day.
I was a bit disappointed that none of the VIPs could meet us, but I wasn’t too surprised. I hadn’t given them much notice, and the recent resurgence of vintage Hip-Hop photography has Glen and Janette busy with book launches, panel discussions, museum events, and tours. Vikki Tobak’s Contact High and Glen’s My Rules, two beautiful coffee-table book collections of early Hip-Hop, skate, and punk visual histories, were the combined impetus for my impending journey. I was set to go.
It would be a mistake to think that I was going to Queens just for Run DMC and Hollis. The pantheon of Hip-Hop has incredibly strong roots and ties to the suburban, middle-class neighborhoods to the east of big brother Brooklyn. Jamaica, Hollis, St. Alban’s combine to boast a Hall of Fame line-up of Run DMC, LL Cool J, and A Tribe Called Quest (among many others). The fact that these three all-star acts all came up on the streets of Queens, within a few miles of one another, had me champing at the bit. I loaded up the car with gas, water bottles, books, LP album covers (without the vinyl inside – I didn’t want the vinyl to melt if I was to leave them in the car), and artwork. I wanted to be prepared to share my visual tributes, in case we ran into some Hip-Hop dignitaries. Stranger things have happened (ask Malcolm Riddle)*.
I got a good night’s sleep, and I woke up early the next day. I wanted to get on the road as soon as possible. I figured on a four hour drive, and I wanted to get up there before noon. I pulled onto the highway around 6:30 am, and I clicked ‘Shuffle Playlist’ on my carefully constructed Classic Hip-Hop collection. I was on my way.
While it was a bit hot, it was a beautiful day, and the traffic was light. Early in the drive I received an alert that there was an accident on Staten Island. I chose the offered alternate route, that would ultimately save me about 25 minutes of traffic. Before I left the New Jersey Turnpike, I cued up Woke Up This Morning, the theme song from the opening of The Sopranos. I glided into the lane that would take me over the Outerbridge Crossing, and into New York.
It was a winding, new route, and it took me through some of the residential, ionic and doric-columned neighborhoods of Staten Island. I drove by Bobby Thomson Park, named for the Brooklyn Dodgers killer and New York Giant’s outfielder who hit ‘The Shot Heard ‘Round the World’. I realized I was right next to the beach, when I spotted the suspension towers of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
I uneventfully crossed the span, while getting a good eyeful of the Manhattan skyline. It’s always tricky to spy the Statue of Liberty, while simultaneously trying to avoid slamming into a braking car – but I did it. Once I touched down on the other side, I took the Belt Parkway through the southern edge of Brooklyn. My GPS said I’d be there soon, and I noticed that I’d be taking the Farmers Boulevard exit once I crossed into Queens. As I approached the exit, the song Mama Said Knock You Out emanated from my car stereo speakers. A huge hit for LL Cool J, during the final moments of the track, Ladies Love Cool James shouts “Farmers”, and presumably friends from his neighborhood respond, “What?!”. As this part of the song reverberated throughout the car, I made a left onto Farmers Boulevard, and entered St. Alban’s, Queens. “Farmers! (What!?) Farmers! (What!)”
“Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years
Rocking my peers and putting suckas in fear
Making the tears rain down like a monsoon
Listen to the bass go boom
Over the competition, I’m towering
Wrecking shop, when I drop
These lyrics that’ll make you call the cops
Don’t you dare stare, you better move
Don’t ever compare
Me to the rest that’ll all get sliced and diced
Competition’s paying the price” – LL Cool J
My first destination was neither an LL Cool J spot, nor a Run DMC locale. I’d save those for later. Instead, I chose the Nu-Clear Cleaners brick and mortar building. As many Hip-Hop fans will remember, this is the location of the roof-top video shoot for A Tribe Called Quest’s Check the Rhime video. This is arguably my favorite Hip-Hop song of all-time.
Having researched this location on Google Maps, I began to feel a familiarity with the neighborhood as I approached Nu-Clear. I found parking on 192nd St., the street that has been renamed for Phife Dawg. Excitedly, I hopped out of the car, and went to find the Tribe mural on the side of the building. Initially there was no one around, and I took my time letting my surroundings sink in. I tried to imagine Linden Boulevard filled with friends, family, and fans of A Tribe Called Quest. I squinted my eyes, and could almost picture Tip, Jarobi, Phife, and Ali on the roof, pantomiming their own lyrics, and bouncing to the beats. I took a handful of pictures of the building, and made a bee-line for the new sign announcing Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor Way. This intersection was an important flash point in my Hip-Hop evolution; and here I stood.
“Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock
Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock
With speed, I’m agile plus I’m worth your while
One hundred percent intelligent black child
My optic presentation sizzles the retina
How far must you go to gain respect? Umm…”
– A Tribe Called Quest
When I turned around, I noticed a guy standing in the middle of the Tribe mural, trying to take his own picture. As I approached, I offered to take his photograph. He was dressed in a black suit, with a black tie. Additionally, he wore a crisp, new, fitted Yankees cap. Once we took each others’ picture, he shared with me that he was back in town for a friend’s funeral. He launched into an informative description of growing up in the area, and pointed to a building that was his day-care center when he was a child. He looked past me while he reminisced, and I couldn’t help but feel wistful, right along with him. We were two perfect strangers, but his presence in my story suddenly made perfect sense. We chatted for awhile, never exchanging names, but ending our conversation with a warm handshake and a smile. After collecting more photographs, I headed back to the car. I wanted to get to Hollis, and I wanted to find Nick. I was getting close. – AK
Below: The first ‘mash-ups’ from the trip. Inspired by the Delta Bravo Urban Exploration Team, once I capture the imagery from a site, I attempt to match up the photos that made that spot notable. The haul from this trip was a personal best for me – Twenty-nine successful smashes in one day (although it should always be quality over quantity). I had gone in well-prepared, and these are the tangible evidence of an incredible experience…
The story will be continued in Mission: Queens Hip-Hop History – Part 2